The Hackley Global Freedom Story

Emma Azalia Hackley and the University of Denver - Denver Urban Spectrum Magazine

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A Historical Black Woman’s History Feat She graduated from the University of Denver 115 years ago, but, up until recently, no one realized just how significant Emma Azalia Hackley was to the university’s history.

Perhaps because of her fair skin and hair that lacked coarseness, no one realized the truth about Hackley: that she was not only African- American, but she was the first African American to graduate from the University of Denver. “It was under our noses, and we didn’t know it,” University of Denver Curator of Special Collections Kate Crowe said. Crowe and DU Assistant Professor

Dr. Nicole Joseph have partnered for a research project that seeks to reconstruct the histories of Hackley and other African-American women who graduated from the University of Denver during its rich 151-year history. “We need a fuller picture,” Joseph said. “We need a more complete picture of the student experience.” Joseph and Crowe are seeking out African-American women graduates of the university to interview them.

Those interviews will, ideally, be paired with artifacts that can give people a glimpse of what life was like for such a small population of people who called the campus home. Beverly Leali was one of those rare students.

When she came to the campus in 1957, she recalls there only being a handful of African American students. “They had half-tuition scholarships available for African American students,” she said, comparing Denver to her home in segregated Dallas, Texas. “I felt like I could excel when I came here,” she said. “I felt a sense of freedom. Denver, by no means, was perfect.

But it was a lot better than Dallas.” Joseph approached Leali about sharing her story as part of the research project. “I was really surprised,” she said. “It’s very nice to know someone who wants to know your story.” The researchers identify the study as long-term project.

They hope it will inspire current students who come from diverse populations. “I think DU needs to hear these stories,” said Joseph. “Because they’ve got incredible Black women who are doing amazing things that are connected to them.” Emma Azalia Smith Hackley was an African American singer and Denver political activist born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1867.

Her parents, business owners Henry and Corilla Smith, moved to Detroit where she attended Washington Normal School, graduating in 1886. Smith, a child prodigy learned to play the piano at three and later took private voice, violin and French lessons. Emma Smith worked as an elementary school teacher for eighteen years.

During that period she met and married Edwin Henry Hackley a Denver attorney and editor of the city’s Black newspaper, the Denver Statesman. In 1900 Hackley received her music degree from Denver University. In 1905-1906 she studied voice in Paris with former Metropolitan Opera star Jean de Reszke. Hackley was active in Black Denver’s civic and social life. She founded the Colored Women’s League and served as executive director of its local branch.

She and her husband also founded the Imperial Order of Libyans which fought racial discrimination and promoted patriotism among African Americans. Hackley separated from her husband in 1905 and moved to Philadelphia where she became director of music at the Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion.While there she helped organize the People’s Chorus which later became the Hackley Choral Society.

The group proved popular in the Philadelphia area and gave her the opportunity to study voice in Paris in 1905-1906 with former Metropolitan Opera star Jean de Reszke. Despite her stellar training, Hackley did not pursue a professional career. Instead she spent much of the rest of her life training a younger generation of singers including Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes and R. Nathaniel Dett. She did give benefit concerts to raise money for additional training for these and other singers.

Following a third European trip in 1909, preceded by her divorce from her husband, Hackley began giving classical music lectures throughout the United States After a brief Canadian tour in 1911 she created the Vocal Normal Institute in Chicago in the hope of providing an institution where artists could develop their professional abilities. Hackley also published her own collection of music under the title, “Colored Girl Beautiful.” When the Vocal Normal Institute failed in 1916, Hackley turned her attention to African American folk music and organized the Folk Songs Festivals movement in Black schools and churches across the South.

In 1920, despite failing health, Hackley traveled to Tokyo, Japan where she introduced Black folk music to an international audience at the World Sunday School Convention. During a 1921 California tour Hackley collapsed on stage while performing in San Diego and was brought back to Detroit.

Emma Azalia Hackley died from a cerebral hemorrhage on December 13, 1922 in Detroit. 

Editor’s note:

For more information, email Kate Crowe at or Dr. Nicole Josepha at Sources: M. Marguerite Davenport, Azalia: The Life of Madame E. Azalia Hackley (Boston: Chapman & Grimes, 1947); Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982); “Seven—As Large As She Can Make It”: The Role of Black Women Activists in Music, 1880-1945” in Cultivating Music in America, ?docId=ft838nb58v&doc.view=content&c =0&brand=eschol. For more information, visit m m a - a z a l i a - 1 8 6 7 - 1922#sthash.HUo8Br85.dpuf

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